2014 Spring Football Previews-Defense

Think they displayed the ‘juice' last season? We may well have seen just a splash of the stuff in 2013. With everything and everyone returning for another season together, juice points should flow freely for the Bulldog defense this fall.

When Mississippi State opens spring practices tomorrow at 4:00, the back-seven will look fortunately familiar. In fact coordinator Geoff Collins could quite easily and naturally re-align the same linebackers, safeties, and cornerbacks who started the Liberty Bowl rout of Rice. Because all are back for a new season.

This is not to say there aren't obvious losses from the 2013 squad. Deontae Skinner, who did not start in Memphis, was a three-year regular at outside linebacker and was second in team tackles. He notched 202 career stops. And while his career had its ups-and-downs, safety Nickoe Whitley absolutely ended on the highest of highs. He saved the Arkansas game with one tackle and forced fumble; and won the Egg Bowl with another strip job. Whitley also left with 15 career interceptions, only one pick shy of tying the program record.

With all their combined contributions and big plays, though, there are players proven in their own right(s) ready to take over both jobs. For that matter some seasoned Dog defenders who have made SEC plays are about to feel real pressure just to hold on to starting jobs. Because this spring finds Mississippi State deep in defensive skill personnel.

There's also star-power in coordinator Collins' own linebacker corps (interesting isn't it how only this position gets referred to by that word?). How seriously or not Benardrick McKinney dabbled in the idea of turning professional doesn't matter now. That another season on the order of the last one will put him in a prime pro position does. Because the team tackles leader (71, 3.5 sacks, 2 fumbles recovered) will only develop further here in his second season as the middle linebacker and ‘quarterback' of the unit. Or corps if you will. McKinney's presence goes well beyond the statistics, too.

Concussions ended Ferlando Bohanna's career too early so there is one less middle ‘backer in this camp. There is a young one coming into his own prime though, and only a McKinney can keep soph Richie Brown on the second squad. Though it needs reminding, another reason McKinney didn't make triple-digit tackles is how Collins freely alternated units the second half of last season. Even in tough situations these…no, not backups, alternates is the better word…would take over and take charge. Brown (38 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 1 INT) has all the intangibles, too, and it has to be tempting to figure a way to have him on the field full-time somehow.

That isn't a problem any more for the other linebacking Brown. Soph Beniquez took Skinner's starting job three games as a redshirt frosh, and if there was any fall-off only a coach could know it. Brown collected 39 tackles with 4.5 for losses in relatively limited snaps; and came up with a couple of fumbles. ‘Nose for the ball' is an apt description here. What will also be worth checking when the official pre-spring roster finally arrives is how both Browns measure weight-wise going into their third college year.

The other OLB job is very competitive, again. Matt Wells is now a senior and far-removed from his defensive back beginnings. His 50-tackles season was fifth-best on the squad and Wells found his way into fumbles, recoveries, hurries, everything but an interception and that is always a possibility. Yet as the year went on Zach Jackson (33 tackles, 2.5 FL) got a larger percentage of plays too. Both played at an official 215 last season; they too will be checked for off-season growth in the weightroom.

So, Collins begins this camp with enough established ‘backers for one whole first unit and most of a second. But what fun is that? This defense is about who brings the juice in practices and the coach has a couple of guys he will be grading closely. Most obviously redshirt Dezmond Harris, who went from a 207-pound reporting weight to over 230 by November without losing any speed. In fact, "At times he was the fastest guy on the field," Collins reported.

Plus there have been some moves made. Strong safety Dee Arrington gets his chance to really contribute now as a linebacker, and in Liberty Bowl camp worked behind B.Brown on one side. Deandre Ward had a big spring last year but saw minimal fall action in just two games. This camp is another chance to impress and move up the pecking order. Ivan Muniz has been around long enough to find his special teams niche and get some backup snaps too. Other walk-ons are assured of lots of spring work, such as MLB Mannie Lowery.

It was a tough season for old Dog Tony Hughes. Watching son Jay go down with a serious Achilles injury in the first quarter of the first game hurt the dad, but also made more work for the safeties coach. Still Hughes the elder did what veteran coaches do; he restructured the center of the secondary and turned Kendrick Market into a solid strong safety. Market got remarkably little attention for his 62-tackles season, except of course when he saved the Kentucky game with one timely trip-up.

And now Hughes the younger is back in the mix. His exact health won't be known until Tuesday drills begin but Jay is assuredly eager to regain the starting job. Having to beat out a proven performer will only do them both good. And this isn't even counting in Kivon Coman, who played as a true '13 freshman with 15 tackles in limited duty.

Or, redshirt Brandon Wells, who Collins ranks high on raw skills but said last winter needed more time to make up for lack of high school experience. "But the natural ability is there." Whitley's free safety job was taken over by Deontay Evans (19 tackles) and the third-year soph should open spring first team again. After January rumors of a transfer, soph Quadry Antoine is supposed to be back for his second spring and pushing Evans based on December camp showings. More fascinating is the probability that after a season at corner Justin Cox can play what looks like his natural safety position as a senior. What is worth watching in this part of the backfield is how Hughes pairs and places his safeties, whether free or strong or some combo of each to get a better spring gauge on everyone.

One side-story to 2013 was how the cornerback position went from management by one of the eldest mentors in the league to a first-time college coach. That story was overwhelmed by how State sought to replace Banks, Slay, Broomfield, et.al. The answer was quite well thank you, and in no small part to how Deshea Townsend and Hughes helped accelerate the younger cornerbacks. Like Whitley, they came up huge in the last two do-or-die wins…unlike him they are all coming back. Back better for the seasoning, too, and sufficiently so to evaluate Cox as a safety after playing pretty well down the stretch in coverage position.

Normally one would figure returning starters Jamerson Love (27 tackles, 3 INT, 7 PBU) and Taveze Calhoun (45, 3, 4) would be safe on the first team. This isn't a normal spring and for the best reason. Will Redmond is primed and poised to take a job of his own, with 23 tackles and two breakups playing just half of a season. Suddenly the corner positions are looking lots more like '11 and '12 with three legit starters available for two jobs. No, make that four since Cedric Jiles (20 tackles) is also in the mix. One of the more curious burned-redshirts of 2013 was Tolando Cleveland, with a nine-tackle result for the dozen games played. But he did recover a fumble, and is bound to be ahead of guys who sat out based on having felt the game's heat. Lack of high school snaps meant a redshirt year for Jahmere Irvin-Sills, but in bowl camp he worked third-team on the side played by Calhoun and Jiles most days.

One other factor has to be considered this spring among secondary Dogs, both safeties and cornerbacks. No, they won't be practicing or even in school yet. But much like the wide receivers position where there is also established depth, the current players are aware of who Coach Dan Mullen signed in February at these positions. It's bound to add a little more intensity to spring practicing and scrimmaging.

Juice it up more, even.

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